Explore Ballard’s Nouveau Nordic
Ballard’s personality was shaped by its proximity to saltwater and by its Scandinavian settlers. These days, families, young professionals and creative types from all over call Ballard home, and the neighborhood has become a destination for visitors day and night to sample an array of local restaurants, independent cafés, new and vintage boutiques and craft breweries. Ballard’s classic tourist attraction, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, has long lured crowds, but more modern amenities have raised the neighborhood’s profile.
HISTORY AND CULTURE
With both fresh and saltwater shoreline, the Ballard area had long been home to indigenous tribes when white settlers immigrated here from Scandinavia starting in the mid-1800’s. The newcomers found a familiar landscape in the Pacific Northwest’s fishing, timber, and mountain views. Ballard was informally known as Shingletown for the phalanx of saw and shinglemills along nearby Salmon Bay. Named after its ship captain founder, Ballard became a city in 1890 and was annexed by Seattle in 1907. Learn about the mark Scandanavians made on Seattle history at the National Nordic Museum. The museum’s sleek, modern building on Ballard’s Market Street —opened in 2018 with Scandinavian royalty at the ribbon-cutting — is the largest museum of its kind in the U.S., dedicated to the cultures of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The airy, peaceful museum has ancient artifacts on display along with immigrant histories and modern art and design. Don’t forget to look up from the ground floor to spot soaring glass art from the far-off Faroe Islands. Check online for special events, and consider taking a taking a fika (Swedish for a short coffee and snack break) at the museum’s Freya Café. Check out our guide to the Nordic Museum for more.
A kroner’s throw from the Nordic Museum are the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (informally known as the Ballard Locks), worth the hype as one of Seattle’s top tourist destinations and the nation’s busiest navigation lock. Built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the project is part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which officially opened in 1917 and allows watercraft — and salmon — to travel between Puget Sound’s saltwater and the freshwater of Lake Union and Lake Washington.
Visitors can learn about the locks, watch boats big and small “lock through,” and press their noses against the underwater windows to watch the instinctive struggle of salmon as they leap from pool to pool of the manmade fish ladder that lets them clear the canal. June, July, August and September are peak viewing times for the fish, which attract seals, sea lions and a cacophonous nesting colony of great blue herons, Seattle’s official bird.
On a fine day bring a picnic — perhaps fish and chips from a nearby restaurant — to enjoy under the leafy trees of the adjacent Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens. For a pleasant beach walk, continue down Shilshole Avenue to Golden Gardens Park (more of a public beach than a garden), and stroll along Puget Sound to take in views of kayakers, sailboaters and the Olympic Mountains when the weather obliges.
EAT AND BROWSE
The dining and shopping district is concentrated on Ballard Avenue and Market Street between 17th Avenue Northwest and 24th Avenue Northwest. The ever-expanding brewery scene is more widespread — seemingly in every other building — but walkable if you grab a map and plan a tasting tour (remember to plan a safe way home).
Charming, brick-lined Ballard Avenue is home to one of the country’s most-lauded oyster bars, The Walrus and the Carpenter (get in line before the restaurant opens to snag a coveted table, or check to see if the online waitlist is taking names). Stroll the neighborhood for dozens more food options, including Puerto Rican, Spanish, Mexican, Italian, French and seafood. To satisfy a sweet tooth, take your pick of ice cream and cupcake shops, fancy molten chocolate cakes at Hot Cakes or the Filipino ube cheesecake (to-go only) at the Hood Famous Bakeshop.
Then browse away in Ballard’s varied indie shops for a dress, a rare succulent, a vinyl record, a new book or a Norwegian krumkake iron, any of which would make a suitable souveneir from Seattle’s most Scandanavian neighborhood.
– Written by Maria Dolan